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Here’s the thing: Considering how much that I love 2000AD and Judge Dredd, you’d think I’d be much more excited than I am about IDW Publishing’s announcement at WonderCon that they have the American rights for Dredd material. Sadly, I have enough of a memory to know that this might just lead to more fan heartbreak.
I should, of course, point out that my nervousness is nothing against IDW, who have shown through their GI Joe (No, seriously, Cobra is a great book), Star Trek and Dungeons and Dragons series that they can work wonders with franchises and licenses that’ve proven to be difficult for other publishers in the past. No, this all comes from a place of anxiety over Dredd‘s historical performance for American publishers, and a resigned, depressed feeling that Dredd‘s appeal is too complex and confusing for enough US comic readers to keep afloat for too long.
I mean, sure; Eagle Comics (and, later, Quality Comics) managed a relatively successful line of 2000AD reprint books in the US for some time in the 1980s and ’90s, but from all reports, what kept those books afloat was as much the cheap, cheap licensing fees it was paying to 2000AD than sales on the actual books themselves. Since then, we’ve seen Dredd published by DC twice – Firstly, in 1994 with a main series by the in-retrospect great creative team of Andy Helfer and Mike Avon Oeming as well as an anthology series called Legends of The Law, and secondly as part of an overall DC/2000AD deal in 2004 that reprinted material as opposed to coming up with anything new – with neither attempt making it to two years of publication. If one of the Big Two publishers can’t make Dredd enough of a draw to keep going past a year or so, what chance does anyone else have?
There’s also the strange case of the nonexistent Dynamite Dredd. Announced in 2008, this seemed to be an approach that had a real attempt at making a go of things: New Dredd stories written by Dredd veterans Garth Ennis and John Wagner – the latter having co-created the character and guided him for the majority of his 30 years in print, the former being enough of a “name” creator to draw in readers who’d never read the character previously – seemed to be enough of a mix of “old” and “new” to satisfy all potential audiences, maximizing the character’s potential. Publisher Nick Barrucci seemed to have a good approach, talking about using Ennis to “help us find the boundary between the classic character of Judge Dredd and making it viable for an American audience.” And then… nothing.
Cut to four years later, and now it’s an entirely different publisher who’s talking up the American potential of the character. And I want to believe, I genuinely do; like I said, I really like IDW as a company, and think that they’ve managed to get things like Doctor Who – as British as Dredd, surely? – right, but… Dredd seems cursed, in a way. The character and franchise is so tonally particular – a mix of action, ultra violence, social satire and broad comedy – that it’s staggeringly easy to get wrong, a fact that’s all too clear when you read creators like Grant Morrison or Mark Millar fail to hit the mark. But that particular tone, that mix of ingredients, also limits the character’s appeal to a large extent: You get the character right, and you risk alienating an audience because the comedy is too dark, or it’s too political, or too violent, or not enough in any of those directions.
It may just be that Dredd has historically failed in America because it’s just not suited to mainstream American tastes, and the crossover between those who’d “get it” and those who read comics is too small to be financially viable. Of course, depending on the deal IDW has with 2000AD owners Rebellion, there’s always the possibility of making their material available online internationally, which could change things considerably (as may the Karl Urban-starring movie, when it appears… assuming it’s not just another Sly Stallone-style letdown, of course). Will IDW end up being the publisher who can make non-2000AD readers give a drokk about Dredd?